H2WOE: the frightening picture of SA’s water crisis
A new report highlights overexploitation of our water resources, and the bold decisions needed to deal with it
We are in trouble. There’s no other way to put it.
Our water is dwindling faster than ever before, and all three sectors – agricultural, industrial and municipal – are forecast to use increasing amounts of water in years to come. Much of the country’s water infrastructure is in disrepair. Dam levels are dangerously low.
In a water-scarce country, this frightening picture – which is painted in a report released to coincide with last week’s National Water Week – should have South Africans worried.
“A delicate balance: Water scarcity in South Africa”, released jointly by the Institute for Security Studies, the Water Research Commission and the Frederick S Pardee Centre for International Futures, looks at the national forecast of water supply for the next 17 years, leading up to 2035, and how to fix the challenges.The report, co-authored by Zachery Donnenfeld, Courtney Crookes and Steve Hedden, states that although the current droughts hitting the Western and Eastern Cape provinces – and one that affected other parts of the country from 2014 – have brought water into sharp focus, “it did not cause water scarcity”.
“What the drought did was highlight existing vulnerabilities in South Africa’s water system, and properly frame the magnitude of the challenge of ensuring water security for the country,” they write.
The report paints two scenarios: one where the country “continually overexploits its water resources”, and the other where water use is constrained. The latter is “a much more challenging” scenario, at least partially because a better balanced use of water will “come at a cost of reduced agricultural production” and its associated knock-on effects.Crisis in numbers
• 60% – the number of South African rivers currently being overexploited.
• 403mm – countrywide rainfall in 2015, the lowest annual total on record since 1904. However, it came on the back of three consecutive years of below-average rainfall.
• 146 – rivers in South Africa considered to have a “very low” water flow. Only 63 of the 565 rivers have a “high” flow.
• 235 – South Africa’s average water consumption per capita, in litres. The global average is 175.For this second scenario – dubbed the Constrained Scenario – to work, South Africans will have to, across all sectors, reduce water demand by 1.2km³ by 2035.
If this isn’t met, and overexploitation continues, there are potentially devastating effects. Rivers will flow weaker, meaning any effluent discharged upstream would be less diluted. The health risks of this are obvious. The overexploitation also makes areas less resistant to “shocks”, such as droughts, floods and other extreme weather events.
It might sound like it, but hope is not lost.
“It is possible,” the report states, “to restore stability to South Africa’s water system, but it will take significant financial investment and political will.”
Among these investments are building on existing plans to increase the level of surface water – mainly through building new dams – and supplementing it with increased re-use of wastewater, dealing with non-revenue water, using more groundwater, particularly in the agricultural sector, and strengthening water demand and supply management systems, which would include charging those who use more water for the water that they use.
“South Africa’s water sector hangs in the balance. Yet ... stability is not out of reach.”Report recommendations
• South Africa must use water more efficiently. This can be done through infrastructure repairs, implementing new building codes, creating incentives to install water-efficient appliances and creating a tiered pricing structure;
• Re-use wastewater more. Currently, about 40% of the country’s wastewater goes untreated. Improving water treatment has potential to increase the quantity of, and the quality of, water in the country;
• Extract more groundwater. This is something the Department of Water and Sanitation has already earmarked as having potential, and could be particularly significant for the agricultural sector; and
• Adopt additional technologies, although these are “not likely necessary now”.